Competition in the smartphone space is as fierce as ever, so much so that some manufacturers started using the term “superphone” to set their high-end devices apart from the rest of the pack.
Though the need for, and the exact meaning of the category “superphone” is debatable, the fact is HTC’s “multimedia superphone” is up against Samsung’s.
It’s HTC Sensation versus Samsung Galaxy S2, with both devices competing against Apple’s iPhone 4.
This review won’t compare these devices directly, but it is worth keeping in mind the Sensation’s competition.
Body and Construction
After the large, high resolution display, the first thing you’ll notice about the HTC Sensation is that it looks and feels like unibody device. There is no obvious seam for a back cover and it doesn’t rattle around like it’s loose inside a case.
The only hint that the Sensation does come apart is the relatively inconspicuous release switch at the bottom of the device. When held in, the Sensation’s insides can be completely removed from the case, allowing you to insert a SIM or microSD card, and replace the battery.
This design makes for a very attractive looking device, but it unfortunately also introduced some flaws that detract from the usability of the device. More on that later, though.
The HTC Sensation weighs enough to feel substantial in your hand and pocket without feeling like a brick, so the device never feels plastic or cheap.
Camera and Battery life
Though the camera on the HTC Sensation is much better than we’ve seen on some of their previous devices, it still simply doesn’t play in the same league as the iPhone 4 or Samsung Galaxy S2. It may have the megapixels, but it continues to fall short in low-light conditions or when the composition is complex – such as when there are subjects of highly contrasting colours in the shot.
It is also worth noting that when the device’s battery hits 25% the flash and flashlight can no longer be used.
As with most smartphones, a single charge on the battery will last you a day or so under moderate usage conditions. This includes receiving and making a few calls, downloading some apps, surfing the web and using your social networks of choice. I also left the mobile data and Wi-fi connections on all the time for the duration of my tests.
Heavier usage can drain the battery in a few hours, however. I managed to burn through 40% of the battery by receiving and making 52 minutes worth of calls in one day. The greatest burden on the HTC Sensation’s battery, as with most other such devices, remains its massive 4.3-inch qHD display.
Touch display: The make or break for the modern smartphone
With the display being used as the preferred method of input on most modern smartphones, it has arguably become the most important component of a device. Even though the panel itself may not be directly responsible for lack of response or poor graphics, it is through the display that the overall user experience of the device is revealed.
In the case of the HTC Sensation this was initially very disappointing. There was input lag, lack of responsiveness and often downright unrecognised touches – all of which are completely unacceptable for a high-end device.
However, a few hours before the Sensation received its update to Android 2.3.4 in South Africa, the problem seemed to correct itself. Not only did the update provide the ability to use Google Talk’s video chat and allow local Sensation users to access HTC’s bootloader unlocker, it also seemed to fix a long-standing issue with the responsiveness of the touch screen.
Deeper investigation suggested that the screen becoming more responsive right before the update may have been pure coincidence, however.
Other Sensation users have reported the same issue, with one XDA-Developers forum user offering a solution involving the grounding pin in the HTC Sensation’s removable shell.
Solid case with removable insides was maybe not the best design
Although my own display woes are no more, another design flaw soon reared its ugly head, this time related to the headphone and mic jack at the top of the device.
With a headset or headphones plugged in, the HTC Sensation would skip tracks and often dial the last number in the call history on its own. Though this glitch would manifest seemingly at any time while a set of headphones were plugged in, I could make it dial the last number every time when pressing the power button to lock the phone.
Other tech-savvy HTC Sensation owners believe they have traced the issue to an exposed connection to the cellular radio antenna, which happens with wear and tear on the socket. While I had plugged a headset in only once or twice before this issue came up, I was able to verify that the case did contain an antenna. When removing the Sensation from its case, cellular signal either degrades severely or disappears altogether.
Those who may have liked to use their smartphone as a music player should take heed of this issue as at best it could be somewhat frustrating for the person you inadvertently headset-jack-dial, or at worst quite a shock when you get your bill or check your airtime again.
Design flaws aside, when the HTC Sensation’s display works as it is meant to it is a great device. HTC’s Sense UI customisations for Android is one of the few modifications of the default Android user interface that doesn’t have me immediately reaching for Android Market to download Launcher Pro.
Sense integrates your contacts list with Twitter and Facebook, offers a variety of great widgets, has a good default mail and messaging app, and the dialler app continues to be one of the better default diallers out there by allowing you to search your contacts or dial without switching between “keypad” and “contacts” views.
Though this is nitpicking, it is strange that Sense doesn’t support scrollable widgets other than it’s own, and even if you uncheck the relevant box in your account settings Peep (HTC’s built-in Twitter client) starts updating again when you switch the device off and then on again.
With a recommended retail price R1,000 below the Samsung Galaxy S2, the HTC Sensation compares favourably to it’s chief Android competitor. Buyers should be wary of some of the issues introduced by the case design of the HTC Sensation, however, and understand that they may have to go through a few rounds of warranty repairs if they want features such as the headset jack working properly.
MultiTouch Visualizer 2 / MultiTouch Tester : 4 simultaneous touches
Smartbench 2011: 1969